Can Israel Solve Its No Exit Problem?

November 3rd, 2023 by Tom Lynch
” We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. “
Albert Einstein

What Hamas did on 7 October 2023 is beyond terrorism. It is an abomination of horrific proportions. And although nearly all Israelis believe Hamas’s barbaric attack was made possible by a failure of the government, army, and intelligence service at every level, polls within Israel in the last two weeks indicate 80% think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the person mainly responsible for this unprecedented blunder in the history of the country.

Why is this, and how does it influence the way forward after the war with Hamas ends?

A binary decision

After decades of failed policies that seemed to do nothing more than bounce around like beebees in a boxcar, doing more harm than good, Israel is now left with a yes or no binary decision: Go back to the same failed policies that led to this present untenable situation, or seriously move forward to create a two-state solution. It’s really that simple. Unfortunately, if cooler heads choose door number 2, they will face almost insurmountable challenges.

Israel’s leaders say they’ll deal with “after the war” after the war ends. However, behind the scenes, things are happening. As first reported by Bloomberg, the U.S. and Israel are in discussions regarding the establishment of a temporary multinational peacekeeping force in Gaza after the military operation, though the White House is denying that U.S. troops would be part of the potential coalition. This could either take the form of granting temporary oversight to other Middle East countries backed by international forces, granting the United Nations temporary governance, or establishing a group similar to the multinational force that enforces the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. None of these options is ideal.

The key word in the preceding paragraph is “temporary.” Whichever option leaders choose, what happens after that?

Anything that happens after that will have to involve working closely with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was created in 1994 as a five-year bridge to a two-state solution. How naive that now seems.

From 1994 to 2007, the PA was the Palestinian governing body in both Gaza and the West Bank. In 2007, after Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and the settlements they were guarding, Hamas drove the PA out of Gaza, which left the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Given the apparently early success of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invasion of Gaza, it is possible to imagine Israel actually decapitating Hamas. It has the firepower to do it, notwithstanding the colossal loss of innocent Palestinians, which, despite opinions circulating in the media to the contrary, I believe Israel is doing everything it can to minimize.¹ But what happens then? It is far from clear that anything better will take the place of Hamas.

Consider this. Hamas has had 16 years to create a bureaucracy to run Gaza. That bureaucracy is now large. Keeping it would mean working with around 40,000 people hired for their ideological loyalty to Hamas; dismissing it would repeat the mistake of America’s “de-Baathification” program in Iraq, which threw legions of angry, unemployed men on the streets and had terrible results for Americans and Iraqis alike.

Palestinians themselves are not united

The Palestinians have been divided for almost two decades. Though Hamas and Palestinian Authority leaders meet every couple of years to pay lip service to reconciliation, neither party has exhibited any desire to compromise. But the schism has been exacerbated by the divide-and-rule policies of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who thought them a useful tool to stymie the Palestinian dream of an independent state. “Netanyahu had a flawed strategy of keeping Hamas alive and kicking,” says Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, defense minister, Army Commander, and, to my mind, the Israeli leader with the clearest vision of the current situation. To put it bluntly, there is no person alive with Barak’s range of strategic, tactical and political Israeli experience. When Foreign Policy’s Editor in Chief Ravi Agrawal asked him to go deeper, he said:

“One of Netanyahu’s extreme-right ministers explicitly said that Hamas is an asset and the Palestinian Authority is a liability—rather than the other way around. Netanyahu pushed this policy for at least the last five years. He basically decided that in order to effectively block any possibility of moving toward a two-state solution, which he hates for some reason, we have to strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian Authority. He was yielding to Hamas’s demands and keeping them alive and kicking and paying them protection money through the Qataris. That was a very bad policy that many of us, including myself, explicitly attacked and described as a grand negligence of our interests.”

This divide-and-rule policy contributed to Hamas’s savage and sadistic attack on 7 October. And it has permeated all of government. In an effort to further weaken the Palestinian Authority, the far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry responsible for policy in the West Bank, recently opted to suspend the transfer of nearly $150 million in tax revenues to the PA — a major source of income for the nearly destitute governing body in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed during a Senate hearing this week that the Biden administration urged Israel to unfreeze the funds, among other actions necessary to provide the PA with the resources it needs, but the ultra-nationalist Smotrich has thus far refused to do so. Blinken described this as, “Another aspect of the problem.” That is an example of a diplomat being diplomatic.

Those aren’t the only funds aimed at helping Palestinians Smotrich has held up. Israel’s previous government had allocated Arab municipalities $85.5 million for educational programs in East Jerusalem. Moreover, additional funding was allocated for higher education preparatory programs for young Palestinians, designed to enable students from East Jerusalem to study in preparatory programs at Israeli academic institutions. None of those funds have been released by Smotrich, who is also a settler in the Israeli-occupied West Bank² and the leader of the Religious Zionist Party. He is noted for his far right extremist views, especially with respect to Palestinians. He told Arab Israeli lawmakers in October 2021, “It’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”

Smotrich is an example of the type of hurdle good people will encounter after the war as they try to put the political toothpaste, now oozing all over the carpet of Israel, back into a new and improved diplomatic tube.

Another problem with relying on the Palestinian Authority is the age of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s president since 2004. He is now 87 and has no clear successor. None of his would-be replacements inspires much enthusiasm or confidence. Yet, any two-state solution will have to involve a strong Palestinian Authority, which, at the moment, is politically weak and just about broke. Consequently, if it is to be involved in moving forward after the fighting ends, somehow it must be financially and politically strengthened significantly. And soon. A very tall order.

According to Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian minister, “The whole idea of the Palestinian Authority is that it’s a transition towards a Palestinian state. If there’s no political horizon, then the whole Palestinian Authority becomes irrelevant.”

For anyone who’s paying attention, the IDF’s invasion of Gaza and defeat of Hamas is the easy part. When “after the war” finally arrives, the real battle begins. That is when Israel, Palestinians, the rest of the Middle East, the U.S., and a good part of the remainder of the world will face a daunting task, indeed.

If political leaders lack the courage to galvanize and develop a viable two-state solution, the current horror will be nothing more than an obscene preview of coming attractions.


¹ According to Ehud Barak, the main command center of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is underneath the Al Shifa Hospital, the biggest hospital in Gaza.

² The UN Security Council, its General Assembly, the International Red Cross, and others have all agreed settlements on the West Bank and the Golan Heights violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Doesn’t matter to Smotrich and his colleagues now leading Israel. They just keep building new ones.